I like to see it lap the Miles— by Emily Dickinson

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I like to see it lap the Miles— Summary


Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) composed “I like to see it lap the Miles,” or “The Railway Train”, at some date between 1858 and 1862. She included it in a bundle of poems she mailed to Thomas Higginson, her literary mentor, in 1862. Like the vast majority of her writings, “The Railway Train” was never published during her lifetime. It was eventually collected in the multi-volume series of her poetry that Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd edited and released in the 1890s. Higginson and Todd named the poem “The Railway Train,” an example of the succinct titles they gave to Dickinson’s poems before publication.

The poem’s guiding conceit compares the train to a horse. This metaphor makes sense, given that the horse was the prevailing mode of transportation until the train came to prominence in the mid 19th century. For Dickinson and her contemporaries, the horse would have been the surest frame of reference for understanding the train. “The Railway Train” is comprised of four stanzas that follow a loose ABAB rhyme scheme in common meter, an alternation between tetrameter and trimeter that Dickinson used more often than any other metrical pattern.

Summary of the Poem

In the opening stanza, Dickinson describes the train’s movement as “lap[ping] the Miles.” This image figures the railway as one stretch in a looping horse track. The train “lick[ing] the Valleys up” and “feed[ing] itself at Tanks” further envisions the train’s actions in terms of those of a horse. The phrase “prodigious step” employs the adjective “prodigious” as an adverb for the verb “step”—a technique Dickinson often used. It may be that Dickinson chose “prodigious” instead of “prodigiously” in order to preserve the line’s iambic locomotion. Furthermore, the word suggests that the train itself is portentous, hinting at the future order of things.

In the second stanza, the train moves “around a Pile of Mountains”—a metaphor that emphasizes the train’s strength and scale by demoting a range of mountains to a diminutive “Pile.” A similar effect appears when the train “supercilious peer[s] / In Shanties.” The train’s contemptuous gaze at the rough-hewn shacks by the side of the track suggests its pride in its own newness and powerful construction compared to the primitive products of past hands.

In the transition from stanzas two to three, Dickinson develops the unusual image of the train “a Quarry par[ing] / To fit its Ribs / And crawl between.” Presumably the train tracks pass through a stone quarry. The quarry presses so close to the tracks that the train must—in a further equine metaphor—narrowly “fit its Ribs / And crawl between.” These first two lines of the third stanza are really a single line split in two, for their two pairs of stresses combine to form the expected tetrameter line. Dickinson’s split mimics the narrowing action of the train’s squeezing through the quarry pass. The train...

(The entire section is 1,497 words.)